Climate change alters forest composition

Sugar maples are seeing population decreases across the U.S. due to climate change, making fiery autumn leaves harder to find. (Mark K./flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 28, 2017

Beech trees are crowding out other important tree species in northeastern United States woodlands because of climate change, according to a recent study.

Researchers from the University of Maine tracked beech, sugar and red maple tree data in the northeastern U.S. from 1983 to 2014. The U.S. Forest Service data showed that beech tree populations have increased significantly over the thirty years while the other tree species decreased. The study found that hotter temperatures and increased precipitation, both caused my climate change, allowed for beech trees’ population boom.

Beech trees have important advantages over the species that used to dominate the area. First, they often shade out other species competing for sunlight. Second, the local deer prefer the taste of sugar and red maple saplings to beech ones. The changing climate is changing the composition of forests and managers will have to adapt, researchers say.

Dr. Aaron Weiskittel is a forest biometrics and modeling professor at University of Maine and one of the study’s authors. “There’s no easy answer to this one,” he said to the Associated Press, “It has a lot of people scratching their heads. Future conditions seem to be favoring the beech, and managers are going to have to find a good solution to fix it.”

Sugar maples, one of the important species declining in the northeastern U.S., are also expected to decline in numbers in the northern Midwest due to climate change. A twenty-year study published in January found that as global temperatures continue to rise, sugar maple growth in the northern Midwest will be stunted and the species population will decrease.

Researchers point out that forests soak up 25 percent of the greenhouse gases that are emitted each year, so continuing to learn about how forests will respond to the changing climate should be prioritized.

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